* I started researching the unconscious spectrum where 3 I’s reside while researching a powerful skill termed “Unconscious Search” used by prolific inventors and innovators used to move from problem space to solution space. The research cue was triggered by a few life-altering insights when I noticed that great innovators and inventors had somehow found a method to optimize two-way communication between their symbolic and sub-symbolic systems as explained below.
What is the difference between instinct versus intuition ? What is Artificial Intuition ? Is Intuition same as Instinct ? How does the subconscious mind or unconscious mind operate ?
It is quite likely that you have used these three terms interchangeably as I did for many years, but, hopefully, this post will offer some clarity. Notice that I wrote these terms in a particular order (Instincts, Intuition, and Insights). Instincts are the oldest evolutionary processes while intuition and insights are more recent ones.
The 3I’s are always operating on a continuum within our embodied cognitive processing. Due to the amorphous nature of these inter-mingling processes, it is hard to draw boundaries where one process ends and the other starts. We can also categorize the 3I’s as unconscious, preconscious and conscious categories of awareness. We remain blissfully unaware of most of the unconscious processes, remain somewhat or partially aware of the pre-conscious processes and fully aware of the conscious processes. Some of these processes may shift back and forth like shape-shifters in and out of our conscious awareness, while most others remain completely buried as hidden processes in our unconscious.
We take outputs of our instinctive and intuitive sub-symbolic systems (see sophistication-maturity figure below) for granted as they act below the threshold of conscious as familiar processes/feelings/senses. We have various senses through which we navigate our world and experience the outputs of our unconscious processing systems. Some of these taken for granted sub-symbolic outputs are exteroception, interoception and proprioception. Note that “Gut Feelings” like hunger and pain are interoceptive Signals which signal our overall psycho-physiological state to us in any given context. Likewise, hunger, thirst, copulatory urges are all interoceptive senses. Exteroception mostly helps us capture raw data from our external world, while proprioception helps us maintain our balance and apply appropriate kinematic force when we open doors or lift things. We remain blissfully unaware of much of these senses for granted unless we start losing them. Instincts and Intuition mostly operate through these high bandwidth senses and signal to us the output processing of our unconscious. Sometimes, these senses can be used as bio marker signals for events i.e. the involuntary twitching of left eye is considered a bad omen in some cultures, which is a borderline signal between interoception and exteroception. Hunches and Gut feelings*are other forms of interoceptive signals which we usually take for granted. *Note that hunches and gut feelings are different signals.
Senses and Evolutionary Development
Our embodied mind evolved over many years of nature driven optimization. Most of the early neuro-psychological systems were sub-symbolic and pre-verbal. The language and symbol based symbolic systems have only recently developed. Neurological development occurred in layers similar to how technology evolves in layers. Although we as humans have functioned very well in the larger scheme of evolution, our neuro-psychological embodied design is far from perfect. It is a patchwork driven framework developed on the go by nature. We evolved from predominantly bayesian (predictive) to the sophisticated symbolic systems which handle language (see figure below). The early bayesian system allowed us to survive by making quick predictions in new environments while the connectionist systems helped us to classify and cluster nearest neighbours. The analogical systems helped us become intelligent by using metaphors or analogies and symbolic systems allowed us to communicate and share our knowledge and wisdom. Using this framework of intelligence, even crows are intelligent as they use analogical systems, but unlike humans, they cannot consciously share their unconscious intelligence with others using symbolism. A permutation and combination of “sub-symbolic translation to symbolism” has helped advanced the human race. “Unconscious Search“, a powerful meta-heuristic process used by inventors from primitive ages is based on optimal use of all sub-symbolic and symbolic systems components. It is plausible that “unconscious search” developed at the same time we started walking upright and were able to use our hands to make tools to advance the human race.
Seeing the maturity curve above, we may have missed that technology is developing in reverse direction starting with knowledge re-engineering (symbolic expertise), progressing to deep learning, evolutionary algorithms, genetic algorithms and bayesian systems (see the sophistication-maturity curve). Once we are able to combine all of these into a cost effective and safe computationally efficient algorithms, we can claim that technology has arrived. As of 2019, such a development is still a distant dream.
During the layered development process, whenever a neuro-psychological modification or update was needed due to the changing environment, a patchwork layer was created on top of the previous layer (similar to software patches that provide quick fix problems for flawed original designs). The previous layers continue to function till a major update would be released that changed the original design structure from bottom up. Before these major updates would be released, nature would choose mutants (outliers or anomalies) to test the new design. As nature developed new layers while retaining the old legacy layers, the new layers had to learn how to incorporate the complexity of older layers while dealing with the improvement in the new layers. Our current nervous system is a result of this complexity.
There are many advantages and disadvantages of layered hierarchy and architecture as outlined below. The biggest disadvantage of a layered architecture is QoS issues (Quality of Service) issues. When QoS issues arise in a system, some parts ask for more attention and bandwidth than others. In the case of our 3I’s, Instincts play a stronger role than Intuition which plays a stronger role than Insights. We experience this on a daily basis, when we plan to reduce weight, but our instinctive and intuitive layers fight back against our new objectives. The top layers i.e. conscious layers may want us to lose weight, but, the intuitive and instinctive layer may cancel the masters demand by assigning more bandwidth to habitual/instinctive patterns.
What are Instincts ?
Instinct comes from the Latin Word Instinctus which means instigation, inspiration or impulse. Instincts, unconscious realizations or unconscious processes are the earliest neuropsychological developments while Insights developed when we stopped living nomadic lives. Instincts are innate i.e. hardwired and they exert a much stronger influence on our desires, urges, and actions. We may also say that Instincts are genetic memories that are selected, processed and passed over from generations to next generations. They are in some way”best practice repertoire” survival tool-kits that were inherited from our previous generations increasing our chances of survival. At the fundamental level, instinct is simply “Stimulus-Response” and due to the super-fast operation, we are unable to consciously bottleneck or control the responses.
Instincts helped us survive in primitive slow moving environments and nature tested evolving instincts by creating mutant agents of the existing versions who had better fitness functions over current environments over other agents. Over many generations, a comprehensive evolutionary selection process eliminates the undesirable traits while choosing the features; and responses which are beneficial to be passed on to the next generations. If the environment changes faster than the slower selection process, the chosen traits may become maladaptive and obsolete. Instincts may be super-fast responses to unconsciously selected cues but by themselves they ,are selected and shaped through a painfully slow process. Let me use an example of instinctive memory. Look at the picture of any cute baby face in the images in this link.
The cute, protective as well mushy feeling was the super fast perception and response a.k.a instinct working. In 1943, Konrad Lorenz, an ethnologist first termed the world “Baby Schema”. Baby Schema is an instinctive stimulus-response pattern and generates pattern recognition of “cute face” cues. The “baby cute face” happens to be an evolutionary development that keeps vulnerable and helpless human children safe and protected. The facial features of the baby, the big eyes, small nose, round head, little hands, babbling talk, silly laughter kick in nurturing instincts in humans and specifically the primary caregivers. These cues also generate loads of oxytocin, a pleasure chemical that generates social intimacy and connection with others. The helpless baby is intuitively and instinctively unaware that cuteness is a smart way of getting what he/she wants.
Even a three-month-old baby has same protective instincts when they interact with a pet or a younger child. We cannot stop or control instinctive actions as they are processed and controlled by the limbic system (old brain) and bypasses the cerebral systems (new brain a.k.a neocortex) due to the QoS (Quality of Service) program that gives more bandwidth to instincts than intuition and conscious insights. The cartoon movie industry and toy manufacturers have capitalized on this “Cute Face” schema and built trillion-dollar toy industry around this concept. Every moment of our lives, our instincts are creating responses over which we have no control.Instincts in algorithmic form (genome language) are stored in our DNA as advanced combinatorial codes (2004 Nobel Prize), and they are very hard to change unless one is psychologically or neurologically impaired in some way. They are akin to VLSI programs written on computer chips that only experienced programmers can understand and recode. While instincts work in most situations to keep us safe, many instincts may have become obsolete functions in new environments due to the time lag in releasing new code updates. Few worth mentioning examples of obsolete instincts are cheating, diving and driving on icy roads.
When men or women cheat in stable, happily married relationships, they are driven by “unconscious primal instincts” which supersede intuitive wisdom acquired through the culture of origin. Men are driven by primal instincts to spread their genetic code through future generations, while women may cheat by a primal instinct to seek a “superior genetic heir. These instincts had usefulness in primate environments, however, in the socially evolved environments, they are responsible for creating social problems like breakups, transient relationships, divorce, and heartbreaks.
Early humans were scared of water and rarely harvested any direct use of oceans and rivers. Due to this instinctive program (or lack of it thereof), new divers have an urge to surface quickly for air, however, controlling the ascend is the best way to remain alive in such an environment situations. Slow ascend allows better control of breath, less panic and optimization of energy. The instinct to rise quickly was coded when humans rarely swam or dived in water. We can see similarities in icy road driving. When we skid on an icy road, we instinctively want to move away from the direction of the skid (move away from direction of danger). Those who have learnt defensive driving on the ice know that controlled driving in the direction of the skid is the best way to avoid an accident in such a situation.Due to rapidly changing environments, our instincts were becoming obsolete quickly and nature created a new layer i.e. intuition. Life became more adaptive using these newly acquired intuitive skills (ascend slowly, drive in the direction of the skids, remain aware of the social consequences of cheating).
As we can see, instincts are too powerful and it takes a lot of conscious effort to break away from the clutches of the primitive urges. Instincts are genetic memory based “stimulus-response” patterns stored in our DNA, which are not open to conscious alteration or deliberation. Instincts cannot be altered and have significant survival functions which may become obsolete in current settings. We have to rely on intuitive experiences acquired through implicit learning to offset the design flaw of our architecture.
What is Intuition?
As our species moved away from the forest to the savannahs, we started living in communities. The complexity of social interaction significantly increased and instincts were unable to deal with the increasing range of computational possibilities. To enable survival of the human race, a major environmental shift mandated faster and diverse adaptive responses. Intuition developed as a layer on top of the instinctive processes which enabled real-time experience trappings (experienced based memories also called Priors) and changes in adaptive response to achieve better social outcomes. Intuition can be considered another major patchwork roll out in the layered architecture development. In this distributed and decentralized system, a large range of scenario based responses could be captured locally in each mind, and then recalled for appropriate use in relevant environments.
We did not have to wait for a global release of the genetically updated instinctive code. Instead, nature delegated the local system update to us where we could root the overall system and created our own updates on demand. While we have the ability to acquire large range of intuitive experiences at will, most of the intuitive learning occurs passively and implicitly. Due to this, few of us have updated our intuitions acquired in culture and family of origins. Most of our intuitions have been not been updated past the first 6-7 years of our formative development.
Some of us consider intuition as inferior to logic in some way. Logic is actually a sub-set of intuition and logic informs intuition while intuition directs logic. Intuition is a powerful and sophisticated system and works similar to listening to music through a high-end music system. Basis our knowledge of the system, we can use the music system sloppily i.e. passively and casually or in a sophisticated manner i.e. actively and consciously similar to when music buffs can control the fine settings on the system. Most people use intuition sloppily not knowing that it is a powerhouse of computations that can be trained and educated. As I will highlight in future posts, well educated and optimized intuition is the key to invention and innovation.
Intuition comes from the Latin word intuir, which implies ‘knowledge from within’ and means different things to different people. Researchers study intuition from epistemological (information and knowledge) perspective, while neuroscientists study intuition from a cognitive perspective. Technologists study intuition from a computational perspective and philosophers see it through a philosophers lens. Those who experience benefits of using intuition in their day to day life view it from the perspective of first hand experience i.e. the phenomenological approach. All these perspectives are correct and all it requires taking each perspective of the six blind men and coherently stitching it together into a better understanding of the domain.
We have already discussed that Intuition is primarily formed from passively or actively acquired experiences over a lifetime. Through our previous experiences, we know some events or cues are signalling danger to us while others signal favorable and safe environments. A cumulative lifetime of acquired experiences through micro-intuitions, well tempered and adjusted for bias, ambiguity, and deception creates a direct knowing called Wisdom. Unfortunately, intuition suffers from the same obsolescence problem as instincts. Most of our intuitive responses have become obsolete since we acquired them in our formative development or in certain contexts. While the good news is that we can change these sub-optimal responses, they are easier said than done. Let us take an example to explain how acquired intuitions may be prone to programming errors making them obsolete in a rapidly changing environment. See the image below.
Imagine seeing a tattooed man outside a bar late at night and notice your first impression feelings. Whatever you felt was due to a mix of instinctive and intuitive feelings, however, intuition played a major role in this response. To some of us, specifically to the female readers of this post, the resultant situation (Tattooed + Man + Bar + Nighttime) probably evoked a strong anxiety reaction. It would also have signalled an immediate evasive response “Let me get out of here as soon as I can”. Through the power of negative stereotyping based on our past experiences, we have learnt that only certain type of people hang around night time in and around a bar who also like to have their bodies etched. Our intuitions created around this prior experience fail to take a new probability into consideration. A probability that body etching is a modern form of creative expression or a probability that this bar is visited by well known creative individuals who unwind in these settings. This key fact (new information) is easily missed (actually ignored) by our stored intuition and may have become obsolete within a period of few single digit years (versus instincts which takes few hundred years to become obsolete). The good new is that unlike Instinctive Responses, which are impervious to negotiation through language, reflection or thought, we can change or moderate our Intuitive Responses in familiar contexts. We can do this through discussion, deliberation or conscious reflecting by acquiring new information that challenges the obsolete experience trappings.
A discussion on intuition is not complete without highlighting the cognitive, computational and evolutionary perspective of intuition. Intuition is a catchall term for the multitasking, multifaceted and multi-functional right hemispheric, sub-cortical, sub-symbolic processes which operate a wide range of mostly unconscious, error prone stimulus-response processes. Intuition is a nonlinear and counter-logical evolutionary algorithm which eventually led to the development of the simpler, slower, logic based, cause-effect enabler and serial processing “left brain“. It is superior to logic and actually invented logic so that we could have a simpler dumbed-down interface to interact with our unconscious mind. Unfortunately, only inventors and seasoned entrepreneurs know how to do that effectively. Due to the rapidly increasing complexity and changing environment around us, if intuition did not biologically evolve on it owns, someone would have had to invent it.
Intuition is responsible for Problem Solving or Adaptive Response, Unconscious Decision Making (Inference, Judgement, Assertion, and Choice), Pattern & Cue Recognition (Context Framing, Context Sensing & Pattern Recognition), Response Modulation & Replay (Action Orientation and Habit Patterns). The most important function of Intuition is however, Adaptive Prediction. Adaptive Prediction assists us in sizing up current or future situations and prepares our responses for them online or offline. Rest of the functions work in concert with the prediction module to assist it to perform better.
We may not notice it, but, we are always predicting and a part of us extends into the future. The smoother the predictable transition from the present moment to the future moment, the more even our life experiences. Similar to how Netflix buffers a part of the future movie stream, our predictive modules are always creating generative maps of the future. Like other “taken for granted” senses, we take the predictive function for granted until it fails us.
We frequently come across people who claim that they are Intuitive. Every human is intuitive in perceptive and motor skills and is born with the intuitive ability. If someone claims that he/she is not intuitive, you must immediately check their pulse to ensure they are still breathing. What some people intend to say by claiming to be“more intuitive” is that they can sense, perceive and process more bandwidth than others. More bandwidth can be a good thing or bad thing depending on the context. When we suffer from free-floating anxiety about an implicit negative event in the future, the higher bandwidth is not working for us as we are predicting an unfolding negative direction of events in our mind sometimes making it a self fulfilling prophecy.
Those who are able to predict the direction and possibility (heuristics) of an unfolding situation may term it a sixth sense, while others consider intuition as an embodied action process using which we interact with our environment. Walking from parking lot to the mall door is intuitive, flipping function on a touchscreen phone is more intuitive than pressing five buttons to reach out contacts. The way we transfer food from hands to our mouth is intuitive. Intuition does not mean completely effortless, it just means that whatever we are doing is optimized in some way. Basis the above, intuition can be used to classify Perception (conscious as well as subconscious) as well as Action (Motor responses). As we are getting better and better at understanding the neural, cognitive and behaviour elements that constitute intuition, as recent as 2014, there has been a renewed interest by many in the spidey-sense component of this intuition (see image below) . A detailed write up on spidey sense is scheduled in the near future.
Spidey-Sense is surely intriguing, but I think the most interesting areas of intuition are “Entrepreneurial Intuition” and “Inventors/Innovators Intuition” which results in breakthrough innovations and changes in market dynamics. Many famous innovators have spoken about the impact of tapping into the immense power of intuition, however, this area of research has not entered into mainstream academic and applied research. Whether it is spidey sense, entrepreneurial intuition or innovator’s intuition, it must be clear by now that there is nothing called “carte blanche” Intuition. Intuition is always domain specific and educated intuition requires thorough stress testing before we can incorporate intuition into good quality decision making
Unfortunately, for the majority of us, the intuitive spectrum is ridden with errors as most of our intuitive content was implicitly acquired during our childhood or old contexts and has become obsolete. Due to intuitively stored experiences, our past is significantly over-represented in our cognitive and perceptual systems sometimes creating sub-optimal performances or warped saw cutting into the future.
Humans and primates are captive to their instincts but do not have to be captive to their sub-optimal intuitions. Instincts have gone through an extensive evolutionary selection process and although they may become obsolete due to the age factor, they still work for us in survival circumstances. Intuition, on the other hand, does not go through a strong selection process and as such we may have acquired and retained poor quality intuitions. It is imperative that we follow our intuitions with some discretion while actively learning how to leverage it’s sophistication.
What is Insight?
The most interesting function in human development has been what we call “Conscious Insights“. Insights are cerebral and conscious representations of the last mile processing of our intuitive and instinctive programs. While instincts and intuitions are sophisticated integrated processes within our unconscious systems, insights are an emergent property of the interaction of conscious mind, attention systems and intuitive processing elements.
Insights emerge in our consciousness when certain elements undergoing intuitive processing achieve sufficient threshold activation. Majority of the intuitive ideas rarely reach the activation threshold to surface into our consciousness. Prolific inventors and entrepreneurs have figured out a way or shall I say invent a method to get their intuitive ideas to conscious awareness. As discussed elsewhere, they use a powerful toolkit not taught in any B-School which I call “Unconscious Search” as a mechanism to reduce cycle time to capturing insights on demand.
To explain this process better, an apt analogy is the boiling of milk. Milk boils till it starts rising in volume in a closed container (constraints). Milk needs a specific temperature threshold to be achieved after which it starts the volumetric expansion in the boiling pot. The point at which milk starts rising is the “threshold activation” for milk. Likewise, right at the moment when water turns into ice, a threshold activation level has been achieved and a phase change occurs. The rising of the milk is akin to the rising or emergence of unconsciously synthesized information into our conscious frames. Milk reaches the boiling points after it undergoes a “phase transformation”, similar to what happens with water when transforming into ice. Insights are similar to a phase transformation occurring below the threshold of our consciousness when sub-symbolic patterns can emergent translate into symbolic cues.
Insights are emergent properties of our neuro-psychological processing and high quality insights are rare and exclusive. Emergent properties are unpredictable consequences of components interacting with each other making the sum bigger than its parts. As we discussed in this article, culture is an emergent property of organizational settings and processes . Similarly, Insights emerge when new information interacts with existing information and leads to a perceptive shift in our understanding. Insights will usually emerge from a reconfiguration of existing information in our information schema. We discussed earlier that our instincts create the mushy and protective feeling due to the activation of the baby schema. When this was explained to those who did not know this, it also led to an understanding of why do we feel in a particular way. We experienced a low-level insight. This is a case of “Affective Insight” i.e external effects and events create an improved re-structuring of our previous retained information. High-Level insights are similar to the low-level ones except that they have a higher amplitude, power and can rearrange all previously known information in a disruptively constructive manner. The superior hierarchy of existing information in our unconscious creates a high-Level Insights also called Aha’s. Breakthrough ones are called Whoa’s. Once insights pop in our mind or conscious frames, they are usually accompanied by a release of dopamine, the pleasure chemical. The surge of dopamine creates a sense of excitement. If there is an over-release of dopamine (after worrying about a problem extensively over a long time span), the over-surge can lead one to become hyperactive at the moment. Archimedes had a surge of dopamine when he ran out naked in the streets of Athens yelling “Eureka – Eureka”.
Over-Surge beyond a particular threshold can actually lead to delusion and certain forms of mental disorders. Good quality insights also require another sufficient condition for insights to be called insights i.e. recognition. We should be able to recognize or consciously become aware that an insight has emerged. Otherwise, we can easily miss it. “Conscious Insights” are a conscious recognition of an emergent unconscious observation/thought/feeling/action which is always accompanied by adaptation/improvement/correction of our previously held mental models on a particular subject/domain or events. Insights are always accompanied by feelings of pleasure which makes learning a great pleasure.
Although it is an oversimplification of the process, we can further classify insights into Hindsight, Insights, Foresight and Prescriptive Foresight. All these sub-type of insights are the result of a very complex intuitive processing within our brain. Hindsight is diagnostic in nature, insight is descriptive in nature, foresight is predictive in nature and actionable insight range is prescriptive in nature.
Insights are a function of the conscious mind and plausibly developed at the same time when language developed as humans moved from the jungles to the Savannah’s. If we re-examine our past events in light of new understanding, it leads to an emergent “Hindsight”. Once we pierce through the reality of the existing situation with more intuitive discernment, we experience “Descriptive Insights”. Similarly, if we can carry out intuitive predictions ahead of the unfolding of events, we call it “Intuitive Foresight“.
Prescriptive Insight is a complex spectrum of all three categories i.e. hindsight, insight, and foresight. To leverage the full potential of intuition, one needs to master all three types of intuitive insights. Thereafter, we should be able combine actions with the insights to create tangible results. Those who can learn to master the three types of insights and take strategic action to capitalize on them are called “High Achievers.”High Achievers can create accurate predictive models of the world around them and take relevant action to achieve friction-less oblique outcomes.
Hopefully, this cleared the confusion between the 3I’s. Please look out for next posts on Spidey Sense, Entrepreneurial & Innovator’s Intuition and new framework for Luck.
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My screen name is Wikimonk (Infographic CV) . I am a former uniformed naval officer, design/reverse engineer, by trade and headed Innovation for a global MNC before moving to Calgary, Canada. Currently, I am an Emergent Strategy and Breakthrough Inventing Consultant* pursuing Masters in Innovation at Queens University and making a career transition heading back to the corporate innovation space. I failed early in innovation during my naval career having used popularized tool-kits. Eventually, I got drawn to contrarian and hidden in plain sight insights about innovation. I frequently write about the less popular ideas in Innovation, Strategy, Intuition and Intelligence.*Currently not accepting any new consulting assignments